Occasionally I will take a random photo and by chance there will be an unknown individual in it. Someone that adds to the photo in such a way that I feel I owe them a copy and a thank you. Their first reaction is, “Who is this crazy guy that is taking my picture” and after I show them the photo their apprehension is always replaced by gratitude.
Yesterday I captured a photo of an old man on a bench, staring off into the blowing snow and frozen lake. His back was to me and completely oblivious to my presence. I approached him and started a conversation. My intent was to show him the photo and ask him if he would like a copy, but instead, he gave me something in return.
It was probably the best couple hours of heavy snowfall we had all season. I didn’t measure, but it was ankle- to knee-deep depending on the wind and how much drifting occurred.
But the man sat there as if it was the middle of July and a warm breeze was blowing off the lake. There was nothing special about him – he was of average size and build, dressed appropriate for the winter conditions except for no hat. At the time, I thought about offering my “AC/DC” knit hat to him, but I remember the thought of that and thinking it wouldn’t look good with his plaid wool jacket. I should have anyway.
He glanced up as I approached, face and hair covered in fresh snow, and slid over to the edge of the bench without saying a word. I sat next to him.
“Good morning,” I said. He stuck out his hand; I shook it and introduced myself.
Walter said he came here every day. Until recently, his trips to the pier were accompanied by his wife, but she had recently moved on and “was in a better place,” as he put it. Sometimes they came for the sunrises, sometimes for the sunsets. Most of the time is was for picnic lunch; they always brought extra bread for the ducks, even though the sign clearly says, “No feeding the birds.” He said he was feeding the ducks long before someone decided they didn’t need food and he had no intention of stopping. That was when I glanced down and saw the bag of bread crumbs at his feet, but today there were no ducks to be found, just Walter sitting on his bench, snow melting down his face.
I showed him the image on the back of the camera and he smiled. I offered to e-mail him a copy and. He chuckled, he said he attempted the “whole Internet thing” once but left technology up to his wife. She would show him photos of their grandkids on the computer, and they were always standing next to a cactus. He laughed like there was a joke somewhere that I should have known.
I offered him a physical print, and he declined. In my head, I pictured a cozy little house somewhere in the country, with walls covered in photos of their grandkids and all of them standing there in shorts and sneakers with cacti in the background.
Walter and I sat there together for a few more minutes, talking mostly about ducks and the weather. He mentioned his wife a few more times and every time he did his face lit up, and the snow on his cheeks seemed to melt just a little quicker.
Our conversation slowed, and we both sat there staring off at the frozen lake. I realized at some point I had taken my hat off, and now my mostly bald head was completely wet from melting snow, but I wasn’t cold. It ran down my cheeks, but I was as warm as if it was the middle of July.
I stood to take my leave and offered Walter a ride somewhere; he declined and said that he was waiting. I assumed at the time he was waiting for a ride, or maybe for the ducks to show up for their daily bread offerings. I thanked him for our time, we shook hands again, and I left.
I continued down the pier, taking photos of the blowing snow, the boathouses, and the trees, and as I looked back in my mirror and saw Walter walking slowly away, I thought of the photo of him on the bench I had taken earlier. I pulled the truck over and deleted the image from my camera. Then, I took this photo of the empty bench. I don’t know why I deleted it, but I felt as if I didn’t deserve to have it.
I can’t stop thinking about Walter and what he might have been waiting for. I hope to see him again, but something tells me I won’t. In case I do, I am bringing bread crumbs, regardless of what the sign says.
by Chuck Little